Dakar — The parks are among the world's largest tropical rainforest reserves, covering an area about the size of Switzerland
Democratic Republic of Congo's plan to drill for oil in national parks could leave thousands of farmers and fishermen who rely on the land in a struggle to survive, rights groups said on Monday.
The central African country announced last month that it was taking steps toward declassifying parts of Virunga and Salonga national parks, both recognised as world heritage sites by the United Nations, to allow for oil exploration.
The parks, which together cover an area about the size of Switzerland, are among the world's largest tropical rainforest reserves and home to rare species including forest elephants.
Allowing drilling in the parks would cause a loss of biodiversity, release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and pollute water that thousands of local people use for fishing and farming, according to several rights groups.
Congolese state spokesman Lambert Mende told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the government will study the potential impact of oil drilling on local communities before they proceed.
The government has previously defended its right to authorise drilling anywhere in the country and said it is mindful of environmental considerations, such as protecting animals and plants, in the two national parks.
"There are lake-shore communities, especially in Virunga, that are very dependent on fishing and on the park's integrity," said Pete Jones of environmental advocacy group Global Witness.
"That really needs to be taken into account and doesn't seem to be part of the debate that's happening, which is a shame," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Conservation group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also said it is concerned about the impact of oil drilling on at least 50,000 people who benefit from the fishing industry in Virunga, and tens of thousands more who farm on the outskirts of the parks.
"The risks of pollution are clear and present. The fishing industry would suffer considerably if it gets to that point," said Juan Seve, WWF country director in Congo.
The oil industry would be unlikely to create local jobs since specialists would be brought in from abroad, he added.
The U.N.'s cultural agency UNESCO has previously said that oil exploration should not be conducted at world heritage sites.
Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Kieran Guilbert